Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, a richly involving documentary directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky, centers on Jonas Brodsky, the director’s young son. As he was learning to speak, the boy began to lose his ability to hear. Cochlear implants allowed him to retain a sense of sound and pursue his interest in music. When at age ten he announced out of the blue that he would like to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—not knowing that its author composed it while coping with the onset of deafness—Brodsky knew she had to record the journey. Sheila Evans, then head of HBO Documentary Films, gave the project her blessing, and the documentary was greenlit. It premiered at Sundance in January and opened at the Laemmle Royal in September. On Wednesday, Dec. 11, it arrives on HBO.
Brodsky and her co-producer Tahria Sheather succeed in weaving together several themes into a generously humane mosaic of emotion, but they have accomplished equally valuable work outside the film in their efforts to make the movie accessible to deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Open captioned films are rare, and reaching the 14 million people in United States who experience debilitating hearing loss is a challenge few filmmakers have met.
“I was very determined to make sure that we would do everything we could to make sure the film was shown open captioned around the country,” says Brodsky. Moreover, the filmmakers took pains to ensure that Moonlight Sonata’s captions were of a superior quality. When Jonas plays the title piece at the end of the film, deaf audiences will want to know if he’s playing it well. The captions therefore have to be more detailed and descriptive. “It’s kind of a meta process,” Brodsky recalls of the experiment. “It’s an intellectualization of your process as a filmmaker. What do you want the audience to understand about your scene?”
These carefully rendered subtitles, which HBO division head Lisa Heller dubs “craft captions,” represent nothing less than a cinema literacy initiative. If the majority of movies are uncaptioned for the deaf and unaccompanied by descriptive audio tracks for the blind, then huge swaths of film history are all but inaccessible to those demographics. To meet this need, the makers of Moonlight Sonata launched “The Treehouse Project,” a nonprofit that allows differently-abled audiences better access to independent film.
Brodsky’s parents, Paul and Sally, are also deaf, and were the subject of Brodsky’s first feature Hear and Now. HBO has also re-licensed “Hear and Now” and will play with Moonlight Sonata as a duet. Taken together, these passionately engaged family memoirs are a celebration of life in which, as Moonlight’s narration puts it, “our mistakes become our music.”